What Grieving People Wish You Knew by Nancy Guthrie, Free for CAPC Members
Nancy Guthrie’s overwhelming message in What Grieving People Wish You Knew is to enter into the awkwardness and difficulty of loving grieving people.
**The following may contain mild plot spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.**
Near the beginning of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) forages for food on a dense, rocky island. The camera watches as he drinks the milk of a long-necked creature and spears a prickly fish. While the aging Jedi goes about his daily chores, amphibian-like inhabitants attend to his living quarters (think if the Budweiser frogs gave up alcohol and became nuns). With his unruly robe and wild facial hair, Skywalker is John the Baptist minus the meeting-Jesus-part. His hermit lifestyle involves the protection of ancient Jedi texts, but the darkness of the universe keeps him from applying their print.
If Luke sounds like many of us in this modern age—world-weary types who can’t seem to let go of religion, but who also can’t help but be pessimistic about its misuses—it’s because the newest entry in the world’s most famous space opera feels like our society’s fantasy mirror twin. That sentence reads like a revelation, but it shouldn’t. The Star Wars franchise mirrored and spoke to its historical context from its beginning, with references to Vietnam and the Nixon Administration leading like cookie crumbs to American intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Last Jedi doesn’t rebuild the wheel; it just turns it into a driverless car.
Perhaps this ability to update timeless fantasies to present day concerns is what makes for great science-fiction—i.e. exploring new lands and universes while staying close to the needs and desires of our own. It makes hard truths more palpable, while offering hope in an environment that seems to be running and running and running. In that sense, writer and director Rian Johnson’s newest creation is not only what many audiences need, but how they need it.
The Last Jedi is not only what many audiences need, but how they need it.
Let me first address the tauntaun in the room by offering my overall opinion of the film: The Last Jedi isn’t just a great Star Wars movie, or even a great science-fiction romp, it’s a great movie in general. Those categories aren’t necessarily synonymous. I won’t rank it in the series canon because it’s far too early for someone who adores the original trilogy, nor will I use this review to smash the prequels—those are pretty decent, too. After one viewing, I’ll simply say that The Last Jedi will make old fans happy, bring lukewarm fans into new passion, and let everyone else argue. It’s risky, explosive, and beautifully brazen.
I entered The Last Jedi with only the most basic plot details, and it may be a crime to divulge surprises best experienced in a dark-lit theater (and there are surprises), so here’s to using the Golden Rule in this synopsis. The Last Jedi begins almost exactly where The Force Awakens left off. Per the movie’s opening scroll, the ruthless First Order is finishing their splintering of the weakened Resistance, seizing outposts and hideouts across the galaxy. And now, after being tracked to their home base, the remaining rebels, including their leader General Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), find themselves “tied on the end of a string,” as one character says.
Meanwhile Rey (played by the pitch-perfect Daisy Ridley)—who displayed uncanny ability in The Force during her last showdown with the conflicted Kylo Ren (Adam Driver)—now stands before Skywalker on an island dotted with frogs and porgs (I would love to describe porgs, but “chicken-penguin hybrid” doesn’t do these marvelous creatures justice). As Rey offers the old warrior his lightsaber, he quickly throws it away. This is not the reigning Luke from Return of the Jedi. Staggering from Ren’s betrayal, Luke wallows in regret and near nihilism. “The Jedi must end,” he says with no remorse.
The rest of the narrative, both intimate and sprawling, focuses on the notion of hopeful survival, even as the cat begins his dance with his string. One might say The Last Jedi finds an able partner in this year’s Dunkirk. Christopher Nolan’s thriller tells the story of the fabled British retreat that all but saved the allied cause during World War II. The Last Jedi, like Dunkirk, slips a noose over the notions of war, underlining how victory may simply be living to see another day.
The Last Jedi certainly falls under a just (star) war theological spectrum, but it also realizes that ideologies—favoring freedom or tyranny—rise or fall based on what happens at the edges of violence. At one point, Leia tells the brash Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), “There are some things you can’t fix by jumping in an X-Wing and blowing things up.” This posture becomes the film’s primary reflex. Hope for the future may not be packed with a great military victory, but in the margins—a rescue, maneuver, or sleight of hand.
Rian Johnson (of Brick and Looper fame) brings a unique, auteur approach to these visions, elevating his occasional screenplay weaknesses. The film’s standout scenes (and there are a handful) will make audiences cheer and holler and maybe even cry. But even then, Johnson doesn’t take a story about calamari admirals and light-up swords too seriously. There’s a playfulness to the dialogue, and a desire to illicit imagination at the exploration of new worlds and characters. If Disney weren’t already a branding machine, we’d turn these vehicles, heroes, and creatures into toys ourselves.
In that sense, Johnson’s approach to these ideas feels at once within the Star Wars universe and a wise gamble beyond it. His near-poetic compositions contain a slightly dim layer of melancholy gloom, and flash with images of sophisticated brilliance. On Skywalker’s island, the camera periodically floats directly above the terrain. Mammoth ships hover like small molecules in the limitlessness of space. Visually, the religion of the Jedi feels ever close—in between rocks, bouncing off the corners of caves, and in the pores of physical touch. There exist allusions and pictures from the Old and New Testaments, that of the Buddha, and Taoism—Johnson using his Industrial Light and Magic toolbox to make the universe dance with wonder and mystery. Like the franchise mythology as a whole, The Last Jedi contains pictures and sounds from numerous religious backgrounds to highlight each’s pursuit of unity with humanity and the metaphysical. Here, it’s the themes of atonement (Old Testament), resurrection (New Testament), wholeness (Buddhism), and balance (Taoism).
If The Force Awakens represents the circularity of time, while highlighting the limits of human progress, The Last Jedi quietly ponders a philosophy of fate, mythmaking, and the conflicting nature of war. Humans are drawn to kill and destroy, even in the name of justice. Dameron shoots first, but his macho-recklessness may circumvent the preciousness of life—despite his brave intentions. In another plotline, the Stormtrooper deserter Fin (John Boyega) and a crewmember named Rose (played by newcomer Kelly Marie Tran) set off to a casino-fueled planet in hopes of saving their peers under siege. Soon, they learn that war is big business, and the galaxy’s most affluent profit off both sides. The sequences here are a bit wanting, but Johnson effectively highlights how the line between upright and evil isn’t so easily imagined. In this shifting chessboard, where does human choice fit within the automated mechanisms of violence?
Our choices between light and darkness become a choice of accepting our ancestral influences or clinging to a new story.
This question comes to a head during the film’s third act when the characters converge on a barren planet hiding a layer of red salt just below the topsoil. As the conflict escalates, the terrain looks to be oozing blood. Johnson employs these images (as well as the red gradient background in Supreme Leader Snoke’s throne room) to symbolize lineage and family heritage. Eventually, these characters must face the past—their bloodline. And Ren and Rey’s tangle with these ideals, and each other, just might be the movie’s most enduring legacy. For a series making much of destiny, The Last Jedi emphasizes how fate and family history intertwine to the point where our choices between light and darkness become a choice of accepting our ancestral influences or clinging to a new story.
Later, as the film winds down, a slave boy is seen playing with a makeshift doll—a toy resembling that old hermit who seemingly gave up on the world. The scene wrestles with the themes of myth and legend, but it also works as a vision of desire and providence. In the world of The Last Jedi (and in ours), sometimes inspiring others comes simply by surviving another weary day in the fight against evil—even if we’d rather not have, as one character puts it, failure as our “greatest teacher.”
These ideas of perseverance, suffering, and destiny hark to a beautiful yearning hinted at in one section of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam. With lines of intense anguish and longing, Tennyson pens:
Oh yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final goal of ill,
To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood
Tennyson’s poetry, like worthy science-fiction, speaks of that beautiful, even religious, shimmer we call hope. And, in a time like ours, we could all use a little more hope.
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